By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Illustration by Geoff Grahn|
DO PEOPLE REALLY CHANGE WITH THE TIMES, or do they just learn how to finesse themselves more subtly? That's the question that comes to the fore when reading Joseph Epstein's latest, much-discussed book, Snobbery: The American Version.
"Jews and homosexuals have always felt themselves the potential -- and often real -- victims of snobbery, and of course much worse than snobbery," Epstein observes in a chapter charmingly titled "Fags and Yids." The "of course" is a nice touch, though this vigorously reactionary belletrist is scarcely prepared to say, "Of course fags and yids perished together at Auschwitz." For, as anyone familiar with the arc of his career knows, Joseph Epstein once went so far as to invoke what some have likened to a "final solution" to the "homosexual problem."
"If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth," he declared in "Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity," a September 1970 cover story for Harper'smagazine that inspired an unprecedented protest demonstration in the publication's offices -- a protest in which I participated, and aftershocks of which continue to this very day.
"That is an essay that has followed me around," Epstein recently informed Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times. "It was not meant to be an attack. But, in 1970, the subject of sexuality suddenly became politicized. Once that happens, all textured thinking goes out the window. I hope I don't have a reputation as a homophobe, which is really a stupid word."
In other words, to deem a specified class of citizens expendable is "textured" thought, but when members of that class band together and fight back -- well, that's "political" and therefore, as the Yids would say, trayf. And to make matters worse, theyhave armed themselves with a word to use against the attackers. What's a "textured" thinker to think?
Much has happened in the 32 years since "Homo/Hetero" appeared, most notably the AIDS epidemic -- which briefly seemed destined to make Epstein's wish come true. "As a Jew," he tells Rutten, "I think one of the sweeter Jewish decisions is that a decent person ought not to add to the hatred and horror of the world. When that essay has been badly greeted, I have hated it for that reason." But the essay hasn't been badly greeted, it's simply been properly understood; so, he hates getting caught -- pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain. At heart Snobberyand "Homo/Hetero" aren't as far apart as they might at first appear.
"There is nothing exclusively feminine about snobbery, but it does sometimes suggest, in the full pejorative sense, the effeminate . . . the less than virile," Epstein 2002 declares. You can guess what's coming next, can't you? But maybe not. For Epstein doesn't go there this time. To do so would cast aspersions on the manhood of the robustly effeminate Fats Waller, who is so ostentatiously acknowledged at the beginning of Snobbery.Epstein makes passing mention of such "homosexuals" (gaybeing an anathema to him) as Lucius Beebe, Joe Alsop, Allan Bloom and Gore Vidal in the course of his breezy run-through of shifts in societal fashion. A fortiori, he playfully decorates the dust jacket with obviously fake raves from even more famous "homosexuals" -- Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Noel Coward. This is doubtless a nice change from the "In the beginning, I felt confusion, revulsion and fear" that opened his 1970 opus, where he recalled how his father warned him of "men with strange appetites, men whose minds were twisted, and I must be on the outlook for them -- for myself, but even more for my little brother." No more about little brother followed, but Epstein was at the ready with all manner of horror stories of men -- many, most alarmingly, "in no way effeminate" -- importuning his apparently irresistible young self. The most amusing of these recollections finds Epstein dissuading his would-be seducer by telling him he was studying for the priesthood. And thatstopped him?
Epstein had no clue as to why he'd become such sure-fire homo bait. But he swiftly moved to a different scale of hysteria with the tale of Richard -- someone he knew in the Army and worked with later in civilian life who, he discovered through a third party's disclosure, wasn't straight.
"I was stunned, then angry. I was angry, first, at my own lack of judgment and subtlety in not deducing that Richard was a homosexual; and, second, more intensely, at being victimized by his duplicity. We were not close friends, but I liked him, and it now seemed that every moment we had spent together was a huge sham, an elaborate piece of deception to hide the essential, the number one, fact in his life." But how was Epstein being "victimized"? Richard (apparently a model of homosexual self-control) hadn't made a pass. Yet mere knowledge of same-sex orientation is cause for Epstein's instantaneous rejection -- making it obvious as to why Richard never brought it up. Save as a pariah, there was no basis, in Epstein's eyes, on which his "friend" could be permitted to exist.
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